The perils of porn

Independent on Sunday: Talk of the Town, 11 January 2004

It's a bright winter’s morning and the merchandise on the shelves of Hot Rod Productions' vast warehouse in Hackney has more than its usual lustre. The glitzy new packaging of DVD boxes for Debbie Does Dallas, Rude Girls 2 and The Good, The Bad and the Wicked jostle for attention as various black-clad young things wander around, boxing up the films for distribution in the UK and beyond. Business, for Hot Rod - voted 18th in Arena magazine's ranking of power brokers in the worldwide porn industry - is booming.

But Chris Ratcliff, who with ex-convent girl Anna Kieran set up Hot Rod four years ago, is not a happy man. With his head in his hands, three-day stubble and de rigour black shirt, he looks every inch the suffering artist, in the midst of existential angst prompted by some unimaginable trauma. But though Ratcliff is a fluent French speaker, with a first in the language from Bristol University, his is not a Sartrean problem. It is a legal one.

“These people drive me round the bend,” he says, passing me the catalogue of a competitor in the adult film business. “They simply have no respect for the law. It's enough to make us want to leave the country and set up shop in Holland. That's what everyone else seems to do.”

I nod wearily with Chris. I know, I say, it is a ludicrous and disgraceful situation. Here you are, a fine upstanding citizen, at ease with your purveyance of pornography and yet only because you purvey in full compliance with the law. In contrast, your competitors treat the law with contempt, blithely relocating to Amsterdam and deluging the UK with illegal adult material. They commit any number of offences, from failing to ensure that their products are duly classified by the British Board of Film Classification to sending obscene material in the post, they even pass off some of your own, duly classified, products as their own. On top of that, they make more money by being dodgy. But what can be done? How to prevent their scurrilous activities? How to create a landscape in the UK porn industry à la that of the US, where mainstream porn is a multi-million dollar business with NASDAQ-listed companies accountable to shareholders, and where (nearly) everyone plays by the rules?

We stare at the catalogue Chris has placed in front of us on the table. It contains a series of images far too explicit for first thing on a Monday morning. Anna arrives and offers a coffee. She too is outraged by the catalogue. Chris again talks of moving to Amsterdam. “At least we could do what we like there,” he says, but I know this is mere petulance, a little bluff to relieve his frustration. Despite his protestations, the odds on Chris and Anna relocating to Amsterdam are long indeed. The pair are intent on staying put and continuing their crusade. The problem is that they are virtually alone.

“Honestly, I’ve had enough,” says Chris, sipping his coffee. “Why is it so difficult for people to do things by the book?” Again, I agree. Why indeed? “But what can we do?” says Chris, as Anna passes me the packaging for Cleopatra, the adult version, starring “insatiable hardcore performer” Julia Taylor, who, I can’t help but observe with my finely tuned legal antennae, will be signing copies of her movies for her fans in certain Soho establishments in the next few weeks. “We’re very proud of this,” says Anna, “it’s absolutely top class.”
I say to Chris and Anna that the law is complex and deeply unrewarding and inequitable and full of lacunae. “What are lacunae?” asks Chris. I explain that they are gaps to be exploited by rogues but that Hot Rod must keep the faith and stand firm in its quest for a level legal porno playing field. “I will do what I can to find the answers,” I say, as Anna hands me the Cleopatra DVD and says “Watch it! It’s fantastic!” It would be impolite to refuse, so off I go. But when I tire of my research, a few hours later, I find that my DVD player is broken. There is no justice.